Thursday, June 13, 2013

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Lead Soldiers' (1948)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Bulldog Drummond is a sort of second-rate Sherlock Holmes, created in 1920 by author Herman Cyril McNeile under the pen name Sapper. He starred in 17 novels from 1920-1954, as well as 26 movies from 1922-1969, played by 15 different actors. According to Wikipedia, he was an important influence on later pulp characters, as well as on James Bond, but he seems pretty much unknown today (although he may be more popular in the U.K., where the novels originated). 13 Lead Soldiers is one of the later Drummond films, and the second of two to star Tom Conway as the main character. It's a pretty rudimentary murder mystery, with a running time of just 64 minutes and a limited number of characters.

The lead soldiers of the title are antiques from the era of William the Conqueror, two of which are stolen when their owner is murdered at the beginning of the movie. Drummond, a wealthy war veteran and armchair detective, is enlisted by the owner of two more soldiers to find out who is behind the murder. The eventual reveal involves hidden treasure and secret passageways, but it's all treated as very mundane, and Drummond and his sidekick Algy Longworth (John Newland) never get particularly worked up about the crime-solving or the danger they're potentially in.

They spend far more energy competing to seduce the women they're interrogating and/or protecting, and a running subplot in the movie involves Longworth pretending to be Drummond because he believes it will help him score with the ladies. The condescending sexism pervades the movie, but apparently it's mild compared to the racist and xenophobic attitudes Drummond expressed in many of McNeile's novels (maybe that's why he's no longer appreciated). As a murder mystery, 13 Lead Soldiers is rote and mediocre, although Conway has a bit of debonair charm as Drummond (who was apparently more of a thug in other portrayals). As a forgotten piece of pop-culture history, however, it can be fascinating. (Watch the whole thing for yourself on YouTube.)

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